By Linda Rex
Many years ago, I attended a mega church for a while. It was located a little distance from me but provided some important counseling resources which were not available in my neighborhood, nor with the other church I normally attended.
One of the first things I noticed about this church was that nearly every car in the parking lot was only two to three years old and in good condition. I was a little embarrassed to have to park my old clunker next to the shiny minivans and SUV’s, but I did it anyway. As I walked inside the building, the people around me seemed friendly, though preoccupied. They were good folks, and I found it quite easy to melt into the crowd and not have to engage anyone in conversation.
After a few weeks, I became more and more aware of the subtle difference in financial status between me and the other people in the church. Most of the conversations between the people in the study group I joined involved decisions about a second or third car, a summer home, or a long vacation in Hawaii. I did not feel able to contribute anything to these conversations because I was still wondering how on minimum pay I would handle all the bills I had coming due in the next week. It was rather awkward for me, but I was there to study the Word of God with fellow believers, not to wrestle with financial inequities. So I let it go.
As the years have passed I have on occasion experienced more of this disparity between the wealthy church, and the broken community within and without the church who needs helped and healed. I have met and grown to love some pretty amazing people for whom the distress of suffering financially or physically is a foreign concept, or one they have experienced only briefly in their lives.
These people are compassionate and generous, but they can sometimes be completely out of touch with the everyday struggles of the needy. It’s not that they don’t care or are indifferent, but that it’s either not a part of their everyday experience, or they feel it would not be genuinely helpful for them to take on responsibilities which belong to the people who are struggling. And they have a valid point.
The culture we live in today often looks perplexedly at the Christian church, wondering why we are not more helpful to those who are suffering. I have no doubt there is room for us to grow in our generosity and helpfulness towards the poor and needy. But it may be that those who are being critical of us have a skewed view of what it means to have life and to have it abundantly. In other words, it’s possible we value different things than they do.
Historically the church understood that divine abundance doesn’t necessarily involve monetary wealth. The kind of abundance Jesus spoke of has a whole lot more to do with the generous outflowing of love and grace from the God who made us and redeemed us than with physical wealth, popularity, and material goods. True abundance involves growing in our relationship with the God who made us and growing in Christlikeness, which involves struggle and sometimes suffering. It involves our participation in a spiritual community which has Christ at the center.
Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor is it a sin to live comfortably in a safe neighborhood where everyone has large homes, big yards, and a swimming pool in the backyard. These blessings provide ample opportunities which would not exist otherwise, and include their own unique set of dangers and temptations. There are benefits and potholes in every walk of life.
Throughout the centuries the church as a whole and individually has at times fallen prey to the subtle deceit of greed in all of its forms. The financial well-being of churches and their leaders sometimes preempts the care of the poor and needy. The health-and-wealth gospel distorts the truth about the Word of God, equating financial and material success and abundance with proof of goodness, success, and godliness. It’s easy for well-blessed Christians to slide into a place of spiritual apathy or an unconscious desire for more and more when all their needs are supplied and they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet. Because of all this, those who are critical of Christians have been well-supplied with ammunition to find fault with us.
But the calling to the Christian church, whether wealthy or poor, still is to preach the gospel to those we encounter on the roads of life. We are to share with others the good news about Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, or in what situation we may find them.
In some ways it can seem easy to preach a meaningful gospel to someone who is starving or homeless. We can offer them what they are needing at the moment and then tell them about Jesus and his love for them. I would imagine it must be much easier to see God’s love in a real way when you are in real trouble and someone offers you love and grace in the midst of it.
It also seems to be much more difficult to preach the gospel and be heard by those who really have no need for God in their lives. When a person is reasonably content with their life, and is able to handle everything they face day by day, God is extraneous to them. In their lives, he really serves no purpose except perhaps to limit them in some way. Or their faith may just be something that is part of their family heritage and really has no personal impact upon their lives.
This is why as I see the material abundance in this country and encounter financially successful people in every walk of life, the question arises in my mind: How in the world do you share the gospel with people who feel no need for it? What do you offer to those who believe they already have all they need or can earn enough to supply it themselves? What if these people are much more generous to the needy and poor than those worshipping in your own church down the street? Why should they care about becoming a Christian when Jesus or those who represent him seem indifferent to them, as well as to those who are suffering or doing without?
The gospel we need to tell must offer something much deeper than just relief from suffering or freedom from sin. The gospel must touch at the core of our humanity. We need to help people personally encounter in Jesus Christ the amazing God who created us and sustains us and who calls us into relationship with himself.
The gospel we offer has great power. It is such good news! In Jesus Christ, we are given the real presence of God in our humanity, living our life, dying our death, and raising us to new life, a life which is at this moment hidden with Christ in God and offered to us right now in the gift of the Holy Spirit. Surely, there is a deep hunger hidden somewhere in the human heart, longing to hear this good news, no matter how distracted a person may be by their abundance and blessings.
And so, we pray. We serve. We love. We pray and care for each and every person we meet, helping them see God is offering them the same gift which was given to us. And we trust in God’s good time, he will enable them to encounter the truth of their need for him, and the wonder of his precious gift of life in Christ Jesus by the Holy Spirit.
Abba, thank you for your faithful love and for all the abundant blessings we receive from you. Thank you for the gift of both prosperity and poverty, for in the midst of each of these we can come to know you and learn to trust you more. May we always be on guard against greed and indifference, and freely share with others all you have provided for us, through Jesus, and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Then He said to them, ‘Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.’” Luke 12:15 NASB
“For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.” 1 Thessalonians 2:3-8 NASB
By Linda Rex
Lent: Awhile back it seemed that everywhere I went, someone was talking about the upcoming lottery. There was quite a bit of money at stake and a lot of people were hoping they might be the lucky one to win it all.
Some of the people who had aspirations of winning the jackpot had some great ideas of how they would spend the millions which would come their way. They would take care of family needs and give some of their new funds away to charity. They might put their children through college and they would probably buy a new car or two.
All of these are good things to do. The change in their financial position would no doubt alter their lifestyle in some way. But altering their circumstances and changing the financial condition of their lives would alter all of their relationships, and it would make demands of them which would require strong character and wisdom. Sadly, not everyone is able to handle this type of dramatic change.
This is because, even with the positive changes that come with being financially solvent and wealthy, there are some things that would not change. They would still be the same people they were before they won the lottery. Their character and nature would not change for the better just because they were well off. Indeed, they may even change for the worse. We hear too often of those whose family and personal life disintegrated after winning the lottery.
Believe me, I’m not criticizing or making fun of those who play the lottery. I’m merely using it to illustrate a point.
I’ve been preaching about temptation during this Lenten season. The reading for last Sunday was 1 Cor. 10:1-13. This passage talks about all the ways Israelites fell prey to temptation while they traveled in the wilderness under the guidance and provision of the Lord.
They had been rescued from slavery, and walked through the Red Sea while the Egyptians who were chasing them drowned. They were brought into relationship with the Lord of the universe who made a covenant with them to be their God while they would be his people. It seemed that Israel had won the jackpot. They had everything they could possibly want at their disposal.
With one caveat: Now they no longer called the shots. From now on they were not slaves of another nation, but neither were they their own masters. Instead, they were the children of Israel, sons of the Most High God. And being children of God meant that they were to live in accordance with the truth of who they were. They were made in the image of God to reflect him, both in their love for one another, and in their love for and devotion to God. God had redeemed them and adopted them as his children. And God wanted them to live like it.
And this was what they wrestled with throughout their history. Many of them wanted to choose to live their own way, as humanity has done since the dawn of creation. And even when they did try to keep the law, they did it in such a way that they developed their own list of rules and methods of interpreting the law. These Jesus eventually criticized because they actually kept people from obeying God’s will in the way God intended.
Even though Israel’s circumstances changed dramatically when they were rescued from Egypt, they themselves did not change. It seems that the external differences in their lives did not alter their character. They were more comfortable with who they thought they were—defined by the onions, and leeks and pleasures of their old life in Egypt. Changes in their circumstances and lifestyles did not suddenly create an understanding of who God was and who they were in relationship to him. And it didn’t immediately instill a faith in God or a devotion to him.
This was something that God worked to grow in them during their travels in the wilderness. He took care of their need for food by providing bread from heaven. He took care of their thirst by giving them water from a rock. He guided them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He worked constantly to teach them what it meant to live in relationship with one another and their heavenly Father. He strove constantly to show his faithful love and compassion even when they rejected him and disobeyed him.
Ultimately, it was in the gift of his Son Jesus that Israel was given what they had needed all along—a new heart and mind. The Word of God took on our humanity and lived the life we all fail to live, died the death we deserve to die, and then rose from the grave. After ascending to the Father, Jesus sent the Spirit to dwell in human hearts—offering us the transition from our old ways of living and being into that of the Triune life.
First Jesus was human in the same way you and I are. He knew what it was like to take a deep breath of springtime air, and he knew the smell of smoke from a campfire. He knew what it was like to be cold, and what it was like to be so hot he could hardly stand it. He was as fully flesh as you and I are.
But then he died and was resurrected. His resurrected body didn’t cease to be human—it just was glorified. He now holds in himself the glorified humanity of each of us. He is what we were meant to become as glorified human beings. The apostle Paul wrote that that just as Jesus is no longer what he used to be, so we are made new as well. In Christ we are new creatures.
This means, like Israel, we are in a totally different situation than we expected. We have all of the beauties and wonders of heaven before us because the God of the universe has called you and me and everyone else his very own. He has adopted us into his family—we are children of God. The old ways of being and living are gone—God calls the shots now.
This means we are not our own masters. We are not captains of our own fate. God has declared our destiny in Christ. But we are fully free to choose to love God and follow Christ, or to reject or ignore him. Our decision does not alter the reality of God’s decision to love us and include us in his family. But it does affect how we experience that reality both now and in the world to come.
God has brought us through Jesus’ baptism just as he brought Israel through the Red Sea. He has delivered us from our old ways of living and being, and freed us from those things that held us captive, just as he freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. God brought us into a covenant love relationship with himself just as he did with Israel, and he nourishes us with bread from heaven in Jesus Christ and water from the Rock in the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been given all we need to become all that God has declared we are.
As we respond to this gift of Jesus Christ and open our hearts and minds to the work of the Spirit, we will find ourselves changing. This will not be an external change, but rather a change of heart and mind. Our circumstances may not change—they may even grow more difficult—but we will be transformed. God will take us on wilderness journeys and will grow us up in Christ. Over time, we will find ourselves in agreement with God in ways we never thought possible before. When God goes to work, we change.
And the change God brings about in our being enables us to begin to live in accordance with the truth of who we are as children of God, made in his image and redeemed by Jesus Christ through the Spirit. We begin to live now as residents of the kingdom of heaven—loving God and one another in the same way that the Father, Son and Spirit have lived for all eternity. This is what we were created for—and God is working in us by the Spirit to form Christ in us so we can fully share in his Triune life and love forever. And that, to me, makes each of us the real lottery winners, no matter who we are.
Thank you, Father, for the gift of your Son and your Spirit by whom you are working to transform us and grow us up into your image. Grant us the grace to respond fully and obediently to the Spirit’s work so that we may grow up into Christ as you wish. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” 2 Corinthians 5:16–17 NASB